28 June 2012

Alexander Baron: Rosie Hogarth (1951; repr. 2010)

Rosie Hogarth is Alexander Baron's third novel, coming after From the City, from the Plough (1948) and There's No Home (1950). Set in the Angel area of Islington, predominantly in the fictional Lamb Street which may well be inspired by Baron Street near Chapel Market – and which may also be the inspiration for Alexander Baron's name change from Bernstein – Rosie Hogarth explores a working-class community through the central character Jack Agass, who has just returned to London in 1949 after the end of the war, following civilian work in Persia.

Now thirty, Jack wants to settle down and is welcomed back to Lamb Street as a lodger in the Wakerell household, Mrs Wakerell seeing him as a strong candidate for her daughter Joyce's husband.

Rosie Hogarth underlines the sometimes very subtle class differences in the working class itself – how the respectable Angel area contrasts with the less respectable Hoxton; the insufferable snobbishness of Joyce's sister-in-law Gwendoline (and its attendant, psychologically violent divisiveness); Jack and Joyce's embarrassment as Mrs Wakerell trumpets her daughter and future son-in-law's relative wealth; and Joyce's own social aloofness.

But Joyce's aloofness is mainly a symptom of the alienation several of the characters experience. The brain-damaged 'Barmy' Naughton is the novel's central outsider, stamped by that epithet which perpetuates, indeed defines, his difference – but Jack and Joyce (and the lesser character Mr Wakerell) are wounded too.

The novel was written before the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies freed so many people from their inhibitions, and although sex is clearly close to the surface of these working-class lives, although pre- and extra-marital sex are (largely tacitly) rampant, these inhibitions still form a strong retaining wall which prevents the expression of natural desires. Mix sexual taboos with a certain shy predispositon, expecially if the subject's partner is also shy, and a kind of stalemate results, making communication difficult if not impossible.

Such (though not necessarily sexual) inhibitions are a key theme in the book, as is memory. Jack was an orphan brought up by Kate Hogarth, whose daughter Rosie he remembers fondly and with whom he seems to be in love. Rosie appears to be everything Joyce is not – contrast the sexual attractiveness and sexual confidence of Rosie with Joyce, a timid, rather plain virgin who retreats behind her glasses, and it is evident that a sexually frustrated Jack will be drawn to Rosie like a moth to a flame. And Rosie can burn.

I'm not too sure that I find the secret revolutionary Rosie hiding behind a smokescreen of assumed prostitution all that believable though, and I'm not the only one. In the Introduction to the novel, Andrew Whitehead quotes Alison Macleod – who, with her husband Jack Selford, had known Baron well – as saying that he wasn't completely successful in his depiction of her; Whitehead continues by expressing strong doubts about the 'Shavian-style dialogue about politics and society' that takes place between Rosie and her father Mick Monaghan near the end of the novel.*

But this is a powerful book: Baron doesn't do stereotypes, and his characters are convincingly drawn with their all illusions, their doubts, and their contradictions. This is published by New London Editions, an imprint of Five Leaves, and is a welcome addition to the recover of Baron's hitherto almost forgotten oeuvre.

*Alison Macleod was once a longtime television critic with the Daily Worker, a committee member of Unity Theatre, and is the author of the story of her disillusionment with communism: The Death of Uncle Joe (1997); she is incidentally also the niece of Rebecca West. Significantly, while we're on the subject of Shavian issues, Alison once wrote to me to register astonishment that anyone should be interested in Lionel Britton: Herbert Marshall had once wanted to put on Britton's Spacetime Inn (1932) – in which a central character called Bernard Shaw appears – at Unity Theatre, but the committee had objected on the grounds that they saw it as 'pretentious piffle'.

Alexander Baron: There's No Home

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